강원도 춘천 레고랜드 코리아 리조트. (연합뉴스)
올해 5월 개장한 레고랜드코리아리조트(이하 ‘레고랜드’)의 모회사인 영국 멀린엔터테인먼트는 일각에서 제기되고 있는 레고랜드 부도설은 억측에 불과하고 앞으로 모든 신규투자는 본사에서 자체적으로 진행하겠다는 입장을 밝혔다.
6일 코리아헤럴드의 취재를 종합하면, 멀린은 레고랜드 사업을 맡고 있는 강원중도개발공사(GJC)가 특수목적회사(SPC) 아이원제일차를 통해 발행한 2천50억원 규모의 자산유동화기업어음(ABCP)이 최종 부도처리된 것은 맞지만, 레고랜드 운영에는 전혀 문제가 없다고 강조했다. 다만 채무보증을 선 강원도청을 상대로 ‘계약파기’로 소송을 진행할지 여부에 대해선 ‘기밀유지조항’을 근거로 즉답을 피했다.
또한 내년 1월부터 3월 23일까지 동절기 임시휴장과 관련해, 멀린은 “파크 전체 휴장은 실외 테마파크 특성상 주 이용객인 어린이들과 그 가족의 안전을 보장하고자 지난 55년간 지켜온 약속”이라며 이번 ‘어음부도’ 사태와 연관이 없다고 선을 그었다. ‘어음부도’가 촉발한 국내 채권시장의 자금경색과 최소 50조원에 달하는 우리 정부의 긴급 유동성 지원 대책에 대해서는 별도로 입장을 밝히지 않았다.
지난 달 27일 정광열 강원도 경제부지사는 강원도청 기자회견에서 “채권자를 비롯한 금융시장 부담을 덜 수 있는 효과적인 방법을 지속해서 검토하고 기획재정부 등 정부와 긴밀히 협의한 결과, 12월15일까지 보증채무 전액(2050억원)을 상환하기로 했다”고 밝히면서 김진태 강원지사가 약속한 내년 1월 29일 상환일정을 앞당겼다. 김 지사의 GJC의 회생절차 발표 후 기업어음(CP) 등 단기채권을 중심으로 금리가 급등하면서 시장 불안이 계속되자 입장을 뒤바꾼 것이다.
정 부지사는 채권단이 GJC의 회생절차가 발표된 다음날 강원도와 구체적인 사실 확인 없이 기한이익 상실 사유를 통지하고 보증채무 2050억원 전액 지급이행을 요구하면서 이번 사태가 불거졌다며 채권단에 책임을 돌렸다. 반면 채권단은 지급보증 의무를 회피하는 모양새로 갑작스럽게 회생절차를 발표한 강원도청이 문제라는 입장이다.
강원도의 상환약속으로 ‘어음부도’ 사태가 일단락 되도 앞으로가 더 문제다. 레고랜드 이용객 수가 예상했던 것처럼 많지 않은 데다 휴장으로 ‘수익성’에 빨간불이 켜져서다. 레고랜드는 부인하지만 이번 사태로 신규 이용객 감소는 물론 연간 이용권을 끊는 이른바 ‘충성고객’도 잃을 판이다.
서울에 사는 30대 직장인 김모씨는 “서울서 춘천까지 오고가는 데만 2시간이고 일 단위든 연간이든 이용권이 싼 건 아니다”라면서 “3개월간의 임시휴장은 기간이 너무 길어 연간이용권은 솔직히 손해”라고 말했다.
레고랜드는 연간 이용권 소지자(10월까지 이용권 구매자)에게 유효 기간을 90일 연장해주고 코엑스 아쿠아리움 입장권을 50% 할인해주기로 했지만 이용객 반응은 여전히 차갑다.
김모씨는 “아이가 방학인 겨울이나 여름에 이용하려고 산 티켓을 그 때 이용 못하면 90일 연장이 무슨 소용”이냐며 “애초에 테마파크를 염두에 둔 고객에게 수족관을 대신 가라고 하는 게 무슨 보상”인지 레고랜드가 더 근본적인 대책을 내놓아야 한다고 지적했다.
[Exclusive] Legoland Korea operator confident on future investment
‘Winter shutdowns’ from January to March due to safety checks, not default concern, Merlin says
Legoland Korea Resort, a theme park in Chuncheon, Gangwon Province that opened in May in partnership with a local developer, does not plan to cut back on its operations and will fund any further expansion itself, regardless of the developer’s recent default, the UK-based attractions operator Merlin Entertainments told The Korea Herald last week.
“Any plans Merlin has for future investment are wholly financed by itself,” a spokesperson for Merlin said in an email.
But whether the company will lodge a legal complaint against Gangwon Province -- which had allegedly tried to pull back from the partnership agreement without sufficient grounds, prompting the default -- is still uncertain, because details of the deal could not be disclosed.
“Neither Merlin Entertainments Group nor its wholly owned subsidiary, LEGOLAND Korea Resort (LLKR) are at liberty to disclose details of the agreement with Gangwon Province as we are under a contractual obligation of confidentiality,” the Merlin spokesperson added.
Early in October, Gangwon Jungdo Development Corp., the local developer, defaulted on 205 billion won ($145 million) in bond payments due on Sept. 29, in a blow to market expectations for a government guarantee. The firm was set to enter into rehabilitation for fiscal austerity -- a decision the Gangwon governor quickly went back on after being assailed for floating a “politically-charged,” half-baked plan since Kim Jin-tae, the first-term governor, had enough resources to make the deal work.
He hurriedly advanced the payment deadline to Dec. 15 from Jan. 29 next year, but the fiasco had already upended the bond and short-term money markets. Investors were rattled by what they saw as the transactional nature of a government guarantee. To restore market calm, the government, central bank and even the country’s banking giants upon the government request put together a funding backstop to contain the risks of growing liquidity stress.
“It’s like a bomb blast ripping through the markets because the top-rated asset-backed commercial papers instantly became junk. Who would have really thought that was possible? It’s an all-bets-are-off situation for investors now,” said Hwang Sei-woon, a senior research fellow at the Korea Capital Market Institute.
The fallout is palpable. According to the latest data that Korea Electric Power Corp. revealed Sunday, the top-rated state firm had failed to get enough bidders for its bonds last month for the first time in three years. The “Legoland crisis” was what had prompted the unexpected gap, the firm told Rep. Chung Il-young of the Democratic Party of Korea in a submission asked by the lawmaker sitting on the National Assembly’s trade committee.
Two other top-rated state companies -- Korea Gas Corp. and Korea Hydro & Nuclear Co. -- suffered more from a lack of bidders for their AAA rated bonds. They failed to find a single bidder for bonds worth 200 billion won and 100 billion won, respectively, also in October.
Rep. Chung, who also sits on the special committee on the government budget, rebuked the government for having done little to prevent the Legoland default from spilling over into the wider financial market. He called the government response “inadequate and amateurish.” Chairman Kim Joo-hyun of the Financial Services Commission, the top financial regulator, acknowledges that the government intervention came a little late.Long-term profitability in doubt
But resurfacing worries over the theme park’s long-term profitability increasingly chips away at the government’s support and Merlin’s determination to run the park as planned. Such concerns, along with bureaucratic red tape, had already led to the opening being delayed by 11 years. The Chuncheon theme park is the first and only Legoland on an island. It is the largest in Asia and the second-largest in the world, after Legoland New York.
Lower-than-expected demand is being exacerbated by default rumors, though Merlin categorically denies any such speculation as unsubstantiated. Nevertheless, an increasing number of people are debating whether their annual passes to the attraction are really worth the cost.
“It’s about a two-hour drive from Seoul to Chuncheon and the passes, one-day or annual, are not that cheap, considering all the attractions you see there are just for kids under 12. It’s worth a trip for a day, but a second run? I’m not so sure.” said Kim, a father of a preschooler who lives in Seoul and asked to be identified by his surname only.
Kim, 39, referred to “winter shutdowns” from January to March next year, when the park will be closed for annual safety checks. The park offers a free 90-day extension for annual pass holders, but Kim and many other local tourists holding the passes say they have to sacrifice too much.
“The extension doesn’t cut it. The reason we buy the passes is they allow us to make the trip ‘whenever we want’ at a lower price, and that’s without a doubt when kids are on winter or summer vacation. Why does it take three months to run safety checks? An extra 90 days are useless if we can’t take advantage of school vacation,” Kim said.
Merlin said its operating days and months are not only in line with local “weather conditions and climate” but is based on “Legoland’s 55 years of experience operating an outdoor amusement park for young children and their families,” highlighting safety concerns. A half-price ticket to Seoul’s Coex Aquarium will be given to those annual pass holders to make up for the winter suspension, in addition to the 90-day extension, the park operator noted.
“The thing is, I don’t see what being on rides at an attraction and seeing fish swimming in a tank have in common, really. If I can’t see it, kids certainly won’t.” Kim said.
By Choi Si-young (firstname.lastname@example.org